Do I Need A Copyright?


Do I Need A Copyright?

By Mark Levy

In terms of protection power, a registered copyright is about the best legal bargain around. For a lowly $35 fee (on line) or $65 fee (paper filing) as of this writing, the U.S. Copyright Office will register your copyright and send you back a certificate with its own registration number.

Do you need to actually register your copyright? Not always as I'll explain, but it can be helpful. Under the law, once you've created the work, you're protected your entire life plus 70 years. Meaning from your work's time of birth through the copyright duration, only you or those you permit may copy it or create other works based on the original. You alone may authorize distributing, adapting, displaying, or performing the work.

Once an original work is created and fixed, such as being written down or recorded, then the copyright exists. What a deal! On the flip side, your work isn't copyrightable until the expression has occurred - whether that's written or typed, recorded, carved in stone, painted, blown into glass, stored on a computer chip, or sewn into fabric.

What can be copyrighted? Whatever method you use to express your idea:

  • Books, poetry, plays, short stories, comic books

  • Newspapers, newsletters, magazines, articles

  • Dissertations, theses, research papers

  • Speeches, once they're written out or recorded

  • Musical compositions, lyrics or music, in sheet music form or recordings

  • Audio and video recordings

  • Dance steps

  • Motion pictures, filmstrips, TV programs, instructional, entertainment or marketing CD-ROMs

  • Photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, maps

  • Sculpture, craft works, jewelry designs, fabric designs

  • Architectural drawings, blueprints, mechanical drawings, scale models

  • Websites, computer programs, databases

Easy enough. But the big thing you need to know is that an original idea or concept can't be copyrighted - only the expression of the idea can be copyrighted. For example, your novel can be copyrighted, but the original idea for its plot cannot be. Likewise for journalists, a news story about a big fire can be copyrighted, but the fact that the fire happened cannot be copyrighted. Therefore many journalists can (and unfortunately, do) write about the same event.

Also, since copyright law prohibits copying, it's possible a similar work may be made independently. How many photos of Mt. Rushmore have been taken from the same spot, yet none of the photographers copied anyone.

What can't be copyrighted? Some examples:

  • Titles, names

  • Short phrases, slogans

  • Lists of ingredients

  • Procedures, processes, concepts, principles

  • Unrecorded, unscripted choreographic works and performances

  • Improvisational speeches

  • Common knowledge such as standard calendars, rulers, mathematical facts

  • Data, information, tables and figures taken from public documents

  • Government publications, government maps, court decisions, regulations, patents

On the penalty side, copyrights are a pretty good deterrent. Judges can hand down stiff fines for people caught copying - a minimum of $500 and maximum of $150,000 per infringement. To a songwriter, that can mean potentially getting a monetary award per stolen song. Say an artist gives a concert and it's illegally recorded. The artist can sue the infringer and receive up to $150,000 for each song recorded, at the judge's discretion.

Actual damages have no such limits. If you can prove someone who copied your painting prevented you from getting $1 million in sales, you can sue that person for $1 million. The suit can be for the profits made, or for your lost sales. However, the work must first have been registered in the U.S. Copyright Office before you bring a lawsuit.

Displaying the copyright notice

Under the original U.S. copyright laws enacted in 1790, if you didn't have the correct copyright notice on your work, you didn't have copyright protection. By removing that requirement in 1978, the copyright laws really changed a lot. While it's highly beneficial to use, the copyright symbol is no longer required under U.S. law. So should you display the symbol? Yes! By affixing it to your creation, you inform the world the work is protected by copyright, you identify the copyright owner as yourself, and you show the year of creation. 

The notice for printed or visual materials should always contain these three elements:

1) The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word Copyright, or the abbreviation Copr. The encircled 'C' symbol - © - is preferred to guarantee worldwide protection.
2) The year you created the work. 
3) The name of the owner of copyright in the work, or an abbreviation. 
Example: © 2013 Jane Smith

Other works - musical, dramatic, and literary - are duplicated not in "copies" but in recordings. Since audio recordings such as tapes and disks are known as "phonorecords" and not copies, they should contain the following:

1) The (P) symbol (the letter 'P' in a circle)
2) The year of creation of the sound recording
3) The name of the owner of copyright
Example: (P) 2013 XYZ Records Inc. 

Where to place the notice? Generally it's best placed on the very beginning or very end of your work. Also, there's nothing stopping you from having a copyright notice in several places of the same work. For example, on televised sports shows you'll frequently see a copyright notice displayed on-screen and given orally by an announcer.

To me, a copyright notice should be noticeable. If it's a videotape, put a notice symbol on the cassette's outside label, on the sleeve or box, and within the video itself. When the production is re-played the viewer has several ways to see your copyright information.

Registering your copyright

Under the current Copyright Act of 1976 (which, by the way, went into effect the beginning of 1978), any copyrightable works you create immediately and automatically gain rights of copyright.

That being the case, then why bother filing your copyright with the federal government? If you think someone might steal your work, or copy it, or use it as some part of their work, then register it. Only after the copyright is registered can you bring a lawsuit against an infringer. Thus if someone's been infringing your copyrighted work the past five years, and you registered the work two years ago, you can sue for damages that occurred only during the last two years. 

Here's why I almost always advise people to register copyrights for their creations:

  • Registering your copyright helps guarantee only you profit from your work.

  • Federal registration is required before an infringement suit may be brought.

  • You can stop unauthorized sales or displays of your work and even have the unauthorized copies seized and destroyed.

Contrary to public opinion, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office does not handle the registration of copyrights. The Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress, has that responsibility. For copyright information, call 202-707-3000, or go to 

Following are the more commonly requested forms you should know about, from for downloading, filling out, and submitting:

  • Form PA - for published and unpublished works of the performing arts such as musical and dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works

  • Form SE - for serials, works issued or intended to be issued in successive parts bearing numerical or chronological designations and intended to be continued indefinitely; periodicals, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, annuals, journals, etc.

  • Form SR - for published and unpublished sound recordings

  • Form TX - for published and unpublished nondramatic literary works

  • Form VA - for published and unpublished works of the visual arts such as pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works including architectural works

Fair use of copyrighted material

While copyrights prohibit unauthorized copying and reproduction, fair use allows limited reproduction of copyrighted works for things like criticism, reviews, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. Within the confines of fair use, you may use small portions of others' works without permission, but you also must give the original creator the credit.

For example, when writing a college research paper, the paper's author is allowed to quote from an original work by another author. But it would be considered plagiarism for the writer of a research paper to quote someone else's work and imply it's their own. Thanks to computers, cheating has been easier to spot. A few years ago, a college professor programmed his computer to catch identical six-word strings on students' papers. He uncovered not only plagiarism on a wide scale but a campus cottage industry, in which term papers written for hire were being used by multiple students in multiple courses. 

Shocking as it's been to prominent writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens, there is no such thing as an international copyright protecting an author's work among countries. However, thanks to the international Berne Convention covering most countries including the U.S., created works today are generally well protected from being copied in the member countries.

Like patents and trademarks, copyrights give you an exclusive right - specifically, to prevent others from copying, using, reproducing, performing, making derivative works, or distributing your work. As an Intellectual Property tool, it's a compromise between two competing factions: The public's right to enjoy the creativity of others, versus an individual's right to protect creations from being stolen. 

Do you need a copyright? If your work is any good, then by all means protect it.

For a free initial consultation, contact a business attorney at Denver based Block45Legal today by calling us at (303) 353-4531 or submitting a form here.

Clement Hayes